The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The central characters of The Young Lions, it has been charged, are not real characters but the embodiments of ideas. Critics and reviewers tend to find too little individualization and too much symbolism in the personalities and the actions of Christian, Michael, and Noah. Shaw’s characters, it appears, are propaganda figures rather than rounded characters.

Christian, for example, seems a stereotypical Nazi soldier. There is nothing German about him except his army uniform; whatever might be the influences of geography, culture, and history upon German character are ignored. Instead, readers follow Christian’s moral deterioration as he lives out the consequences of Nazi philosophy. Having heard that Germans are a master race who can rightly rule by force over inferior races, Christian loses all moral scruples as the novel progresses. His actions become increasingly savage: In the struggle to survive, nothing human can be allowed to have value. From callous attacks on enemy soldiers, Christian proceeds to abandoning his own men ruthlessly, to murdering innocent civilians, to betraying a wartime friend to fanatic SS troops. Christian follows out the ultimate logic of his worldview: If Nazism allows the strong to use the weak as they see fit, then the strong may sacrifice even Nazis to stay alive. In his most inhuman act, Christian disguises himself as an inmate during a concentration camp riot and stabs a German officer to death in a successful ploy to hide his identity.

Michael Whitacre likewise appears to embody a social class rather than to exist as an individual. Michael is the typical prewar liberal whose heart is in the right place—he despises the Fascism sweeping Europe—and who speaks enthusiastically of democracy. When Michael comes face to face, however, with fellow Americans who are uneducated, prejudiced, and unthinking, he recants his patriotic gesture of enlisting and seeks to protect himself in a more privileged detachment. Yet even as he flees active service, he experiences the archetypal guilt of the liberal for acting in a way that he knows is weak. It is not surprising that Michael comes to the conclusion that “five years after the war is over, we’re all liable to look back with regret at every bullet that missed us.”

Noah, who emerges as the novel’s most admirable character, seems weakened by being constructed as such an obvious underdog. He is Jewish, an obvious sociological counterpoint to the Christian Germans who begin to carry out genocide and to the German Christian who shoots him. Noah suffers the most physically of any protagonist, but his spirit grows more courageous and undaunted the more he...

(The entire section is 1096 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Christian Diestl

Christian Diestl (DEES-tehl), a former ski instructor, now a sergeant in the German army. Handsome, rugged, and cynical, he is determined to enjoy and to survive the war. Too worldly-wise to accept Nazi ideology but eager to prosper, he enthusiastically fights in Germany’s early victories and tastes the spoils of war. As the tide of battle turns against the Nazis, Diestl prepares to save himself rather than die for a lost cause. Trapped in a concentration camp by a mutiny, he disguises himself as an inmate and kills a German officer to escape. As he flees toward Switzerland, he fatefully crosses the paths of two American soldiers.

Noah Ackerman

Noah Ackerman, a university student drafted into the American infantry after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Born poor, physically slight, and Jewish, he is a target of suspicion and contempt. At boot camp, he must fight his own platoon mates, who want a scapegoat for their prejudice and an outlet for their aggression. He emerges a tough, hardened soldier who performs heroically and skillfully in combat. He fights not so that one nation can defeat another but so that ordinary citizens can live free of ideology. He is one of the soldiers whom Diestl ambushes and kills.

Michael Whitacre

Michael Whitacre, a successful film and stage writer with easy duty in a photography battalion. Well off, and accustomed to comfortable living and cultured...

(The entire section is 617 words.)